A randomized trial has compared Atkins, Zone Diet, Ornish, and LEARN. Over a period of 12 months weight loss on Atkins was significantly greater than the other three diets. Those using Atkins also “experienced more favorable overall metabolic effects”.This study has hit all media outlets like a storm. To those who currently follow the Atkins diet it will come as no surprise. Those who have completely bagged Atkins will be forced to do some soul-searching and/or a very critical analysis of the trial (see abstract here).
The sad thing is, that on this trial – the average weight loss over a year was just 2.8kg (6lbs.) Even on Atkins, the mean weight loss was just 10.3 pounds.
For me, the take home message is this: If Atkins works for you and your lifestyle – then you can quite happily ignore all the nay-sayers and people who are telling you you are about to have a heart attack. To all others – pursue what works for you.
The best diet is the one you don’t know you’re on.
History and controversy surrounding the Atkins Diet
Low-carb diets have grown in popularity since 1972 when Dr. Robert Atkins published Dr. Atkins Diet Revolution, a new approach to weight-loss advocating consuming foods high in saturated fat, which is in direct opposition to the traditional diet norm of minimizing fat intake.
While initially viewed as a radical and dangerous weight-loss plan, in recent years the American Heart Association has acknowledged that low-carbohydrate diets offer some benefit for treating conditions like metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is a collection of conditions known to lead to heart disease, such as obesity and high blood pressure.
However, shortly after Dr. Atkins died in 2003, reportedly from head injuries he sustained when falling outside his New York clinic, a medical examiners report revealed Dr. Atkins suffered a heart attack, congestive heart failure, and high blood pressure prior to his death. This has led to continued speculation of the health benefits of a diet so heavy in saturated fats.
What You Can Eat and What You Can’t
There are four phases to the standard Atkins diet, also called Atkins 20.
It focuses on proteins and fats like:
You’ll have to stay away from starchy and sugary carbs, including:
You’ll eat carbs in veggie form at first. As you progress, you’ll add in other foods, like beans/legumes, fruits, and whole grains.
Phase 1. This is when you help your body switch from burning carbs to fat. This process is called ketosis, and you should notice weight loss quickly. You’ll eat protein, fat, and only 20 grams of carbs in veggie form daily. Some people (like vegetarians) should skip this phase.
Phase 2. You’ll add foods back to your diet, until you learn how many carbs you can eat while still losing weight.
Phase 3. Go to this level when you have about 10 pounds left to lose. You’ll learn how to maintain weight loss and lose the last few pounds.
Phase 4. You’ll follow this for the rest of your life, to ensure that you don’t gain back what you’ve lost.
A newer version of Atkins, called Atkins 40, has more relaxed rules and allows you to start with 40 grams of carbs in the daily diet. It doesn’t exclude any food groups at first, as Atkins 20 does.
There are limits to the amount of butter or fats that you should eat, but no strict guidelines for meats or other proteins.
Level of Effort: Medium
You won’t have to count calories, attend meetings, or buy special food. But this does require big changes to the way you eat, especially if you’re used to starch on your plate or if you snack on chips, sweets, or other junk foods.
Limitations: You’ll have to cut out white flour, sugar, and other common carbs at first, and eat carbs only in vegetable form.
Cooking and Shopping: With Atkins, it’s best to make meals from scratch. If you rely on prepared foods, read labels to find out how many carbs and how much sugar they have.
Don’t buy allowed foods with added sugar or carbs.
You can find Atkins brand frozen foods, drinks, and snacks in stores, but you don’t need to eat them.
At restaurants, choose foods you’d eat at home. Ask the waiter about carb content and keep your hand out of the bread basket.
Exercise: You don’t need to exercise to lose weight with Atkins, but you should get moving. Try to be active for 20 minutes or more every day.
Does It Allow for Dietary Restrictions or Preferences?
Vegetarians and vegans: Atkins doesn’t require you to eat meat. Also, you’ll have to skip the first phase of Atkins 20, which limits carbs too much.
Vegetarians get protein from:
Vegans get protein from:
- High-protein grains like quinoa
Gluten-free diet: It’s easy to stick to that eating plan when you’re on Atkins. Foods with gluten are high in carbs. People on Atkins eat less gluten than people who eat the standard American diet.
Low-salt diet: There’s no need to add salt to any recipes for Atkins. Stay away from canned and packaged foods as much as you can, because they often have added sugars and other carbs, bad-for-you fats … and salt.
What Else You Should Know
Cost: There are no membership fees, meetings to attend, or brand-name foods that you need to buy for this diet. Online and smartphone tools are available and free.
Support: You can follow Atkins by reading a book, but if you want extra support, the Atkins web site has support groups and chat rooms, where you can talk to others who are losing weight the same way you are. There are also free recipes, meal trackers, and apps to make it simple to count carbs, plan meals, and shop.
What Dr. Arefa Cassoobhoy Says
Does It Work?
The Atkins diet is one of the best-known low-carb diets, and the research shows it can work. If you fill your day with processed carbs like white bread, pasta, and potatoes, and you don’t eat many fruits and veggies, then this diet may be the jump-start you need to lose weight.
You can quit your usual go-to foods and start with the Atkins food list. The initial phase in the Atkins 20 plan is limited in food choices but focused on protein, fat, and vegetables that are low carb and not starchy. In each phase you add back food groups: first nuts, seeds, and berries; then fruits, starchy vegetables, beans, and whole grains. With the Atkins 40 plan you can choose from a larger variety of foods and carbs but still little to no starchy foods.
With Atkins 20, the closer you get to your weight loss goal, the more variety of foods you’re allowed. Ideally, you’ll stick to their healthy list and not go back to your old ways.
If you like variety in the foods you eat, the Atkins 40 plan would likely be better for you. Of course you’ll still need to keep your portion sizes under control, which may be easier as a low-carb diet can help tame hunger.
Is It Good for Certain Conditions?
When you’re overweight, shedding pounds can improve your health, and we know the Atkins diet works. But it’s still unclear how the higher amounts of animal protein and fat in the Atkins diet affect long-term health.
Recent research suggests that people on the Atkins diet who chose foods rich in plant fat and protein did better with their health than those who went with the diet rich in animal fat and protein.
This makes sense to me, and the Atkins 20 and Atkins 40 diets reflect this idea. They focus more on getting fat and protein from heart-healthy choices like olive oil and protein like soy and lentils.
If you have diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, or high cholesterol, talk to your doctor before starting this diet to make sure the balance of carbs, fat, and protein is right for you.
The Final Word
For the person who needs structure in their diet, limiting starchy, sugary carbs will help cut calories and allow for weight loss. And focusing on proteins and fats that are plant-based is the healthy and smart thing to do.
For your long-term health, you have to move on from the initial Atkins 20 diet. It’s the later phases of the diet including the Atkins 40 that give you the variety of foods that are important for health. You have to exercise and keep portions small while you start eating nuts, seeds, beans, fruits, starchy vegetables, and whole grains again.
The Atkins diet is a low-carbohydrate diet, usually recommended for weight loss.
Proponents of this diet claim that you can lose weight eating as much protein and fat as you want, as long as you avoid foods high in carbs.
In the past 12 years, over 20 studies have shown that low-carb diets are effective for weight loss (without calorie counting), and can lead to various health improvements.
The Atkins diet was originally promoted by a physician named Dr. Robert C. Atkins, who wrote a best-selling book about the diet in 1972.
Since then, the Atkins diet has been popular all over the world and many more books have been written about it.
The diet was originally considered unhealthy and demonized by the mainstream health authorities, mostly due to the high saturated fat content. However, new studies have shown that saturated fat is harmless (1, 2).
Since then, the diet has been studied thoroughly and shown to lead to more weight loss than low-fat diets, and greater improvements in blood sugar, HDL (the “good” cholesterol), triglycerides and other health markers (3, 4).
Despite being high in fat, it does not raise LDL (the “bad”) cholesterol on average, although this does happen in a subset of individuals (5).
The main reason low-carb diets are so effective for weight loss, is that when people reduce carbohydrate intake and eat more protein, their appetite goes down and they end up automatically eating fewer calories without having to think about it (6, 7).
You can read more about the health benefits of low-carb diets in this article.
The Atkins Diet is a 4-Phase Plan
The Atkins diet is split into 4 different phases:
- Phase 1 (Induction): Under 20 grams of carbs per day for 2 weeks. Eat high-fat, high-protein, with low-carb vegetables like leafy greens. This kick-starts the weight loss.
- Phase 2 (Balancing): Slowly add more nuts, low-carb vegetables and small amounts of fruit back to your diet.
- Phase 3 (Fine-Tuning): When you are very close to your goal weight, add more carbs to your diet until weight loss slows down.
- Phase 4 (Maintenance): Here you can eat as many healthy carbs as your body can tolerate without regaining weight.
However, these phases are a bit complicated and may not be necessary. You should be able to lose weight and keep it off as long as you stick to the meal plan below.
Some people choose to skip the induction phase altogether and include plenty of vegetables and fruit from the start. This approach can be very effective as well.
Others prefer to just stay in the induction phase indefinitely. This is also known as a very low-carb ketogenic diet (keto).
Foods to Avoid
You should avoid these foods on the Atkins diet:
- Sugar: Soft drinks, fruit juices, cakes, candy, ice cream, etc.
- Grains: Wheat, spelt, rye, barley, rice.
- Vegetable Oils: Soybean oil, corn oil, cottonseed oil, canola oil and a few others.
- Trans Fats: Usually found in processed foods with the word “hydrogenated” on the ingredients list.
- “Diet” and “Low-Fat” Foods: These are usually very high in sugar.
- High-Carb Vegetables: Carrots, turnips, etc (induction only).
- High-Carb Fruits: Bananas, apples, oranges, pears, grapes (induction only).
- Starches: Potatoes, sweet potatoes (induction only).
- Legumes: Lentils, beans, chickpeas, etc (induction only).
Foods to Eat
You should base your diet around these healthy foods.
- Meats: Beef, pork, lamb, chicken, bacon and others.
- Fatty Fish and Seafood: Salmon, trout, sardines, etc.
- Eggs: The healthiest eggs are Omega-3 enriched or pastured.
- Low-Carb Vegetables: Kale, spinach, broccoli, asparagus and others.
- Full-Fat Dairy: Butter, cheese, cream, full-fat yoghurt.
- Nuts and Seeds: Almonds, macadamia nuts, walnuts, sunflower seeds, etc.
- Healthy Fats: Extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, avocados and avocado oil.
As long as you base your meals around a fatty protein source with vegetables or nuts and some healthy fats, then you will lose weight. It’s that simple.
After Induction is Over, You Can Slowly Add Back Healthier Carbs
Despite what you may have heard, the Atkins diet is actually quite flexible.
It is only during the 2-week induction phase that you need to minimize your intake of healthier carb sources.
After induction is over, you can slowly add back healthier carbs such as higher carb vegetables, fruits, berries, potatoes, legumes and healthier grains like oats and rice.
However, chances are that you will need to stay moderately low-carb for life, even if you reach your weight loss goals.
If you start eating the same old foods again in the same amounts as before, you will gain back the weight. This is true of any weight loss diet.
There are many delicious foods you can eat on the Atkins diet.
This includes foods like bacon, heavy cream, cheese and dark chocolate.
Many of these are generally considered fattening because of the high fat and calorie content.
However, when you’re on a low-carb diet, fat becomes your body’s preferred energy source, making these foods perfectly acceptable.
More details here: 6 Indulgent Foods That Are Low-Carb Friendly.
Here are some drinks that are acceptable on the Atkins diet.
- Water: As always, water should be your go-to beverage.
- Coffee: Despite what you may have heard, coffee is high in antioxidants and actually quite healthy.
- Green Tea: A very healthy beverage.
Alcohol is also fine in small amounts. Stick to dry wines with no added sugars, and avoid high-carb drinks like beer.
What About Vegetarians?
It is possible to do the Atkins diet as a vegetarian (and even vegan), but difficult.
You can use soy-based foods for protein and eat plenty of nuts and seeds. Olive oil and coconut oil are excellent plant-based fat sources.
Lacto-ovo-vegetarians can also eat eggs, cheese, butter, heavy cream and other high-fat dairy foods.
A Sample Atkins Menu For One Week
This is a sample menu for one week on the Atkins diet.
It is suitable for the induction phase, but you should add more higher-carb vegetables and some fruits as you move on to the other phases.
- Breakfast: Eggs and vegetables, fried in coconut oil.
- Lunch: Chicken salad with olive oil, and a handful of nuts.
- Dinner: Steak and veggies.
- Breakfast: Bacon and eggs.
- Lunch: Leftover chicken and veggies from the night before.
- Dinner: Cheeseburger (without the bun), with vegetables and butter.
- Breakfast: Omelet with veggies, fried in butter.
- Lunch: Shrimp salad with some olive oil.
- Dinner: Ground beef stir fry, with veggies.
- Breakfast: Eggs and veggies, fried in coconut oil.
- Lunch: Leftover stir fry from dinner the night before.
- Dinner: Salmon with butter and vegetables.
- Breakfast: Bacon and eggs.
- Lunch: Chicken salad with olive oil and a handful of nuts.
- Dinner: Meatballs with vegetables.
- Breakfast: Omelet with various vegetables, fried in butter.
- Lunch: Leftover meatballs from the night before.
- Dinner: Pork chops with vegetables.
- Breakfast: Bacon and eggs.
- Lunch: Leftover pork chops from the night before.
- Dinner: Grilled chicken wings, with some salsa and veggies.
Make sure to include a variety of different vegetables in your diet.
A few examples of healthy and super satisfying low-carb meals: 7 Healthy Low-Carb Meals in Under 10 Minutes.
Healthy Low-Carb Snacks
Most people feel that their appetite goes down on the Atkins diet.
They tend to feel more than satisfied with 3 meals per day (sometimes only 2).
However, if you feel hungry between meals, then here are a few quick snacks:
- A hard-boiled egg or two.
- A piece of cheese.
- A piece of meat.
- A handful of nuts.
- Some greek yogurt.
- Berries and whipped cream.
- Baby carrots (careful during induction).
- Fruits (after induction).
How to Follow The Atkins Diet When Eating Out
It is actually very easy to follow the Atkins diet at most restaurants.
- Get extra vegetables instead of bread, potatoes or rice.
- Order a meal based on fatty meat or fatty fish.
- Get some extra sauce, butter or olive oil with your meal.
A Simple Shopping List For The Atkins Diet
It is a good rule to shop at the perimeter of the store. This is usually where the whole foods are found.
Eating organic is not necessary, but always go for the least processed option that fits into your price range.
- Meats: Beef, chicken, lamb, pork, bacon.
- Fatty Fish: Salmon, trout, etc.
- Shrimp and shellfish.
- Dairy: Greek yogurt, heavy cream, butter, cheese.
- Vegetables: Spinach, kale, lettuce, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, onions, etc.
- Berries: Blueberries, strawberries, etc.
- Nuts: Almonds, macadamia nuts, walnuts, hazelnuts, etc.
- Seeds: Sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, etc.
- Fruits: Apples, pears, oranges.
- Coconut oil.
- Extra virgin olive oil.
- Dark chocolate.
- Condiments: Sea salt, pepper, turmeric, cinnamon, garlic, parsley, etc.
It is highly recommended to clear your pantry of all unhealthy foods and ingredients. This includes ice cream, sodas, breakfast cereals, breads, juices and baking ingredients like sugar and wheat flour.